Fast my arse, Yorrin thought.
The pirate vessel was plainly visible now, after well over an hour of slow-moving pursuit. The adrenaline had faded. What replaced it was just a cold, twisted knot in the pit of his stomach.
Aleksandr, Bear, the Free Spears, and the assorted other mercenaries lined the deck. The ship-master had warned them that he expected the fighting to be intense. It was clear from their weeks of coming up empty that the pirates recognized them as a hunting ship. So if they had finally decided to press a fight, here and now, they more than likely had a ship bristling with warriors of their own.
A pirate-hunter, hunted by pirate hunters of pirate-hunters. A smirk came unbidden at the thought. It was short lived when he could finally make out the shapes on the deck of the enemy ship.
There were so many of them. Rough-looking men, clad in leathers and brandishing a variety of weapons. Some had elaborately braided beards and hair, or shaved heads covered in tattoos. They looked vaguely Middish, or maybe Ruskan. Definitely both of those; they hooted and shouted as they got closer, a mix of Middish and Ruskan insults.
As they drew closer, a few of them loosed arrows or hurled thin, light javelins in the direction of the Crimson Serpent. Most of the missiles clattered against the side of the cog, or splashed into the water. A few found their marks, and blood spattered the deck.
“Loose!” shouted the ship-master in response.
Those sailors with bows loosed arrows, Yorrin among them. He wasn’t sure if he hit his target, but several of the pirates dropped to the deck, struck by the sparse little volley. They had time for only two more hasty, poorly-aimed volleys, and then the longship scraped up alongside their cog. Dozens of iron grapples came hurtling onto the deck, followed swiftly by the boldest, most aggressive of the pirates.
The melee was fast, and brutal. He saw Aleksandr and Bear dive into the thick of things. Aleksandr’s steel sword flashed in the sunlight, rising and falling in rhythmic patterns that spoke of formal training. Bear’s axe was more erratic, broad swings that almost looked sloppy. But he put ferocious power into each blow, and the pirates crumpled before him.
Still, it was clear the fighting was not favoring the crew of the Crimson Serpent. For every pirate felled, three more clambered onto the deck. One of them charged straight for Yorrin. Yorrin raised his bow, loosing an arrow on pure instinct. It caught the man in the leg and he stumbled, sprawling onto the deck at Yorrin’s feet. Yorrin dropped the bow and drew his dagger, falling upon the man and wrestling for position. The pirate struggled, but Yorrin’s blade found its way through, sliding between the third and fourth ribs. The pirate whimpered a frightened sigh as he died.
“Sorry,” Yorrin murmured uncomfortably. He’d seen plenty of death in his years, but a fight like this was something different. Something new.
He scrambled back to his feet in time to see a pirate ram a sword through Terence Tanner’s guts. The captain of the Free Spears collapsed, trying in vain to hold back the wet red entrails that slithered out onto the wooden deck.
“Oh God!” he screamed. “Oh God, yield! Help me! Please!”
No one helped him, though. He crumpled over, moaning to no one in particular. The sound of his begging slowly died.
Of his two serjeants, one had fallen in the first wave. The remaining Free Spears tried to rally around the Whip. They formed a semicircle, spears outstretched, fending off the pirates. Yorrin saw one of the Free Spears advance on the Whip.
“Whip!” he shouted. “Tanner’s down! What do we do? God dammit man, what do we do?”
Yorrin saw the gangly man freeze, silent. His blank eyes stared at his dying commander. He had no orders for them. No words of inspiration, or even desperation, to give them courage.
The Free Spears began to crumble after that, and the sailors and other militiamen had to step into the gaps. Yorrin picked up a fallen sword and roamed the deck, relying on his small stature and agility to keep him out of any scrape that he couldn’t deal with. He wasn’t Aleksandr, but he knew his way around a fight at least passing well. Most of the pirates were, it seemed, little more than common brigands themselves. Not expert swordsmen, by any stretch. A pirate rushed him, wildly swinging an axe. Yorrin ducked the over enthusiastic blow, stopping the pirate’s momentum with the tip of his blade. His sword went all the way through the pirate’s chest, the shock of impact rattling Yorrin’s arm. It took two good strong pulls before Yorrin had wrenched his blade out of the dead man.
He didn’t apologize that time.
As the pirates pressed in more desperately, Yorrin made his way to Aleksandr and Bear. He jumped into the thick of the fight at their side. Bear was drenched in blood, though whose was anyone’s guess.
“Yorrin!” Bear bellowed. He sounded excited. No, he sounded ecstatic. He swept a pirate back with a wild swing, and the man stumbled, screaming. Blood gushed from his chest and arm. Bear’s laughter reverberated across the deck of the Crimson Serpent.
By contrast, Aleksandr fought in grim silence. Kholodny’s rippled steel was coated in a wet layer of red, and he drove each pirate that approached him back. Yorrin felt more comfortable at his side. His blade darted in and out of the fray, never quite committing to the level of engagement that Aleksandr’s did.
The remnants of the Free Spears cried out “ Victoria!” and charged back into the fight. They had rallied around one of their men. Not the Whip, but a common spearman. Yorrin did see the Whip in their number, wielding his spear alongside his brothers. His face was pale, his mouth a tight line, and his eyes were empty. He looked like a ghost as he rejoined the melee.
The fight lasted what felt like hours.
It was probably less than ten minutes. When the last pirates fled back to their ship, no one had the energy to give chase. Their own losses were too great. More than half the Free Spears were dead or slowly dying. The sailors and militiamen had lost at least a quarter of their number as well.
Yorrin was unscathed. Aleksandr was favoring one leg, and his breathing came in shallow breaths that told of bruised ribs, but he seemed not so much worse for wear. Bear eventually settled down enough to let Aleksandr and Yorrin clean the blood off of him and see what was and was not actually flowing out of his own flesh. He had a slice above his left eye, and a long gash along one arm, where a pirate’s blade had cut through his layers of cloth, leather, and fur. They bled copiously but looked shallow enough.
“We ought to get that stitched up,” Yorrin said, nodding at the wounds.
“Am fine!” Bear protested. He went to stand, but Aleksandr held him back with a calm, steady hand.
“Nyet,” he said. “Be still. Yorrin, get help?”
Yorrin nodded. He ducked out, clambering down the ladder to the hold.
Belowdecks it reeked of blood and shit. The smell of a battlefield, that was. The smell of death. The ship’s cook and barber also served as chirurgeon; he had sharp tools, moldy hardtack and vegetable shavings for poultices, and a steady hand. But he had both steady hands very full with the dying. Yorrin exchanged a few words and a silver shekel with one of the sailors, and secured a needle and thread along with an extra wine ration.
“Ah, good!” Bear said when he saw the sagging wineskin. He reached for it.
Yorrin slapped the barbarian’s hand away. “Not yet,” he said.
They splashed the wounds, then passed the rest of the skin to Bear. While the big man emptied the skin in a few swigs, Yorrin sealed the first cut with ugly, uneven stitches.
“That’ll scar,” Yorrin commented.
“Good! Scar make man! Bear have many scar!”
Yorrin smirked. He looked at Aleksandr, saw the Ruskan looking out over the ship. Yorrin’s eyes followed his, and saw what he saw.
The Crimson Serpent had earned its name after all. Dozens of bodies littered the deck, pools of blood drying around them. Pirates and sailors and mercenaries, all three. Yorrin stared at them, studying the tangle of bloody limbs, slashed clothes, entrails... He couldn’t even tell them apart.
“Torath’s fangs,” he cursed quietly.
“Not much difference between them, now,” he said. “Is there?”
“Not now,” Aleksandr agreed.
Amidst the corpses, they saw the Whip. He was kneeling in a pool of tacky blood, holding his dead commander’s hand. His face was pale, expressionless. His eyes looked dry. A couple of Free Spears approached him.
“Poor bastard,” Yorrin muttered.
His fellow mercenaries pushed past him, gathered up Terence Tanner’s body. Tugged the Whip’s hand away, and left him kneeling in a pool of blood.
“They ask too much of him,” Aleksandr said. “Was not, ah, prepared? For what happen here today.”
“He probably got more of them killed, breaking like that,” Yorrin said.
“He? No. Pirates killed them.”
“Sure, but… he could’ve stepped up. Held them together.”
“Da, he could have done. Would have been good thing. Very noble, proud.”
Yorrin took Aleksandr’s meaning instantly. “Right. That would’ve been good. Doesn’t mean what he did was evil. He just… didn’t do good.”
God, do I know all about that.
“Can do better, I think,” Aleksandr said. “With practice.”
What a dumb thing to say. “Everyone can do better, with practice,” Yorrin pointed out.
“Da,” was all Aleksandr said. Without another word, he began walking.
Yorrin was startled to realize Aleksandr was headed to where the Whip still knelt. Yorrin walked after him, careful not to slip on the bloody deck. Aleksandr rested a hand on the Whip’s shoulder.
The fellow jumped, finally reacting to something. He looked up. He was a gaunt man: short cropped hair, narrow jaw, sharp nose, piercing dark eyes. Everything about him was lean and angular. He stared at Aleksandr with a hard, unreadable expression.
“What?” he finally said.
“I am Aleksandr. You are… Whip?”
The Whip frowned. “Dylan,” he said. “The lads, they call me—called me—Whip.”
“Dylan. This is Yorrin. Will you join us?”
Dylan swallowed. “I’m fine here, thanks,” he said. That flat Victorian accent made him sound especially dead.
Aleksandr held an open hand out in front of Dylan’s face. “Please? We could be using another man. Bear, our friend, is injured. Is difficult to help him. More hands would be, ah, appreciate?”
“Appreciated,” Yorrin supplied.
Dylan stared at Aleksandr for some time. Finally, he clasped Aleksandr’s hand. Aleksandr pulled him to his feet. Dylan’s leggings were coated in a thick layer of drying blood. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Sure,” he said. “Yeah. I’ll help.”
Aleksandr grinned. “Good,” he said. “My thanks. Bear, he will struggle.”
“Big man,” Dylan said. “Not sure I can hold him down if he really doesn’t want me to.”
“Ah, I am sure you can,” Aleksandr said. Yorrin saw the twinkle in his eye. “With practice.”